At the first signs of decline, I saw the illusion I’d buried in the depths of my subconscious float to the surface: I had assumed she’d be around forever. Even while my mouth had formed words about letting go when the time came, my heart made plans for improvements to her pasture and barn. I looked forward to the challenge of training a 29-year-old, blind horse to come toward the sound of a bell to get a treat. But on a Saturday morning in October too ironically beautiful for a funeral, she let us know in no uncertain terms that it was time for her to go.
If you’ve sat with any animal through its final moments, you have an idea what such waiting is like. And then, suddenly, the waiting is over and you do what comes next. Nowadays in the place where I live, when the animal is a human, there’s a whole team of people trained and paid to take things from here: from the place of the last breath to the place of final rest. But when it’s a horse, there’s just you, fumbling for the intersection of reverence and logistics with half a ton of dead weight.
That was where I found myself on October 10, but that was not the day the season of grieving began. It started about two weeks earlier, when the walnut leaves had just begun to fall in earnest, harbingers of things to come. A friend sent a note officially announcing their departure from our collective community development work in Three Rivers. The note was not a surprise, as our lives had been diverging for several months, in the natural progression of the major life changes we go through in our twenties and thirties. But the same kind of magical thinking I had employed with the horse had tricked me into hoping that the end might never actually arrive.
The same day we received the note, we also heard that another friend with an established business two doors down from us in downtown Three Rivers would be consolidating their entire operation at a second location in a busier shopping district 20 minutes north. Our hearts sank again, both for ourselves and for our struggling neighborhood. We understand the reasons for these departures and honor the desires that motivate them — a saner pace, a search for belonging — but our hopes for their futures coexist with a blank space of loss and defeat, embodied in yet another empty chair at the meeting, yet another set of vacant windows on Main Street.
At least with the horse, we were able to go through motions of ritual to mark a passing. The burial, however clumsy, was still an approximation of the motions we go through with our human dead: dig a hole, inter the body, tell some stories, walk away, eat lunch. But I’m not sure what to do with these other losses that I grieve just as deeply. On a cognitive level, I know that things change over time: mortal bodies fail, places evolve, businesses come and go, communities thrive and decline. And yet my heart knows that there are some seasons when the fog of loss is too much with us, while the abundance of gain shines brightly in someone else’s eyes, someone else’s household, someone else’s neighborhood.
The plot of earth beneath the pines where the tractor scraped out a grave is still an ashen smudge, and for me it stands, among other things, as a symbol of time’s mercy, giving us permission to grieve a while. And yet I also know that the secrets of new life are already at work below the surface, reimagining our friend as food for the trees that will shelter next spring’s hatchlings. If there are no rituals to satisfy the sting of certain losses, then at least there is still the intricate poetry of experience to help us tell the story in a way that makes some sense out of loss, and to begin to hope again.
The quick and the dead
We work quickly
To move the body out of the barn
Advised by the vet that we have one hour
Before rigor mortis,
Before we’d need to cut a hole in the wall,
And perhaps we are irreverent,
Stacking bales of straw against the wall
To brace our feet while our hands
Strain against sweat-drenched haunches
To spin a thousand pounds of dead weight
Toward the doorway,
Hoofs noosed to the tractor,
Knees soaked in urine,
Faces steeped in the lingering stench of fever.
Perhaps reverence is not possible,
Or perhaps it’s all there is
In stroking a fluttering flank crazed with pain
In the fluid press of the syringe
In calling the neighbors over
To help push and preserve that which yet lives:
A stable, empty now, as a womb
That may yet bear more than bales of uneaten hay
And mice and birds and cats.
But for today, its fruit is stillborn,
A hundred years old and no age at all,
Caked with dirt
And the stories of ten thousand mornings.